So great to see the 100 Bullets creative team reunited. The gangster theme here has similarities to the clandestine organization in the Vertigo series, as do the flawed noir characters and the extreme pulp-style violence. But the setting is the United States during Prohibition. A New York City gangster sends Lou Pirlo (one of his torpedoes) to the West Virginia hills to negotiate with a bootlegger named Hiram Holt, who makes some of the best moonshine whisky around.
It’s a test for Pirlo, who quickly finds himself in over his head. Appalachia is nothing like the city, and no one is impressed by his slick looks or his connections. He’s not without resources, though, and he manages to find Holt’s place, way up in the hills, and present his boss’ proposition. He gets a sound rejection and is sent away–but not before seeing the remains of a group of FBI agents we saw torn to pieces by some creature at the opening of the story.
The horror element is only implied at first, mixed in with the general dread of the dark woods (and Lou’s recurring visions of his late sister Annabelle, who died by drowning as a child). A group of hoods from the city show up to help Lou get the deal done. He tries to run away, but gets drawn back into it–next thing he knows, he’s waking up from a drunken stupor in the midst of a bloodbath. But that’s not the worst that can happen: that would be his transformation into a werewolf, which is finally made explicit at the end.
So there are a number of things set in motion by this first arc. It will be interesting to see how the supernatural elements are balanced in the story, now that they are no longer merely implied. The script is full of the sort of regional accents Azzarello was known for in the earlier series, and Risso’s art is marvelous. His characterization (especially the facial expressions), panel layout and coloring are vivid reminders of his mastery of comics. The collection concludes with a variant cover gallery (unfortunately not reproduced at full size).
My Favorite Thing Is Monsters is the fictional diary of ten year old Karen Reyes–it’s even presented on lined school notebook paper, complete with spiral wire binding and three holes punched in all of the pages. Karen feels like an outsider: her greatest desire is to become one of the monsters she admires so much, so she can leave humanity behind for real. The diary is full of B-movie and monster magazine imagery, and when she draws herself it is in the form of a young werewolf (usually wearing the trench coat and hat that are her private detective outfit in real life).
So she has a rich fantasy life, but there’s plenty of story material in her real life as well. The central mystery Karen tries to solve is the murder of her mysterious upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg (the woman on the cover). In the longest portion of the book not narrated by Karen we hear Anka tell her own story, by way of an interview recorded on a series of cassette tapes (the setting of the book is Chicago in the turbulent 1960s). Anka had what could be charitably described as a difficult childhood: raised in a brothel by a drug addict, then surviving a Holocaust prison camp.
She was also sexually involved with Karen’s older brother Deese. He is an artist, which is where Karen gets her love for art from–another recurring visual motif is Karen’s renderings of classic paintings that she views at Chicago museums (complete with artist and date attributions). Karen has a complicated relationship with Deese, and they both deal with their superstitious mother in different ways. They also support each other as she dies from cancer. And then there’s the mysterious disappearance of another neighbor, the puppeteer; her gangster neighbor and his wife; and her friend Sandy (who may be imaginary, or dead).
It’s a rich, surreal narrative, with a thin line between reality and Karen’s imagination. Ferris’ art is made up of dizzying cross-hatched fine pen lines, virtuosic technically while simultaneously having the wild energy of folk art. It recalls Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Robert Crumb stylistically, but the overall storytelling effect is strikingly individual. A dense narrative which fully earns the “novel” part of the graphic novel label. For those who have not heard about this book, it got considerable notice when it came out (actually in 2017 I believe, despite the copyright date), at least among small-press fans A lot was made of the fact that she drew it while recovering from paralysis caused by the West Nile virus. It won “Outstanding Artist” and “Outstanding Graphic Novel” at the 2017 Ignatz Awards, as well as “Best Writer/Artist,” “Best Coloring,” and “Best Graphic Album–New,” at the 2018 Eisner Awards.